Sunday, December 14, 2008

Wanted: Nice Jewish Boys

Not for me, I'm spoken for. But plenty of highly-regarded Jewish institutions might as well make this their motto as non-Orthodox American Jewish men abandon organized outposts of their faith in droves.

Earlier this year, the Cohen Center for Modern Jewish Studies at Brandeis released a study that demonstrated Jewish women outstrip Jewish men in many measures of identity including number of Jewish friends, solidarity with Israel and synagogue affiliation. A Boston Globe article published to coincide with the study revealed that 60 percent of rabbinical students and 84 percent of cantorial students at HUC-JIR, the Reform movement's seminary, are women.

The study also asserts that the halakhic observance of recognizing only matrilineal descent for children of interreligious couples further distances men from Judaism. Since their kids won't be recognized as Jews in any but the most liberal congregations, most intermarried men choose not to raise their children as Jews.

Overall, it seems that as women have been encouraged to assume leadership positions in Jewish communal institutions and ritual observance, then men have been pushed to the sidelines. Strangely, it reminds me of a Sex and the City episode when the characters wonder that as their gender roles have evolved and left them more empowered, where it leaves the men in their lives.

Is the feminization of liberal American Judaism simply the pendulum swinging to the other extreme in response to thousands of years of patriarchy? Do Jewish men now have to relinquish another bastion of masculinity?

As a prototypical third-waver, subscribing to the whole "Feminism is the radical notion that women are people," thing, I might be cheered by my Jewish sisters doin it for themselves. But I think that misses the mark.

Which is why I was pretty cheered and entertained to see this offered on a Hanukkah gift guide. Ranging in age from 23-33, the Nice Jewish Guys 2009 Calendar, begs the question, "What's not to like?" Here, we get a range of all the Jewish male stereotypes with a few curveballs for fun.

Daniel, 30 and a close ringer for Seth Rogen, loves Shark Week on Discovery and "never met a sandwich he didn't get along with." There's an investment banker dude for the Long Island JAP, an Upper West Side foodie for the balebusta and a wannabe Ari Gold perfect for the LA starlet.

Ultimately, like so many other Jewish creations of the last 10 years (Heeb, The Tribe, Kehilat Hadar and JDub Records come to mind), the Nice Jewish Guys calendar shows that both Jewish men and women are not so much turning their backs on traditional institutions as they are making new ones. Today's young Jews have a completely different set of life experiences and a wholly different way of connecting to their Judaism and to other Jews.

I don't mean to be glib about the future of the Jewish people. I care deeply about having exciting, inspiring Jewish life available for my not-yet-existent Jewish children (male or female). Maybe the organized Jewish community would do better conducting fewer studies and spending more time and money on tearing down boundaries and making themselves relevant in today's world. Then the men and the women will come back.


Josh said...

It's all about Birthright, no? If a hundred years from now, someone were to look back and say, "X saved Jewish identity," it's more likely that X is going to be Birthright than any other thing, right? There are some cool other things (I'm kind of feeling the UJC Super Jews idea and how it utilizes social networking), but you have to have the base identity first in order for anything else to build on top of it.

Jack said...

Need to start working on this well before kids are old enough for birthright.

Rivster said...

I'm with Jack. Birthright is great as a last ditch effort to catch those who somehow didn't fall in love with Judaism and Israel prior to exiting high school.

I would love to see a Birthright-type foundation that sent each and every Jewish kid to Jewish sleepaway camp for at least a two week session. I really think that this can have a strong impact on connecting future adults to their Judaism.

Of course, that is too late also...

I too worry about the gender imbalance in Jewish communal life. Probably not what one might expect from a female rabbi! While I believe that women have wonderful things to bring to the rabbinate, I shudder to think of a day when boys might wonder "can I grow up to be a rabbi or is just for girls?" While that seems extreme, it is not implausible. I work with a wonderful senior rabbi and we make a terrific team. One of the reasons is that he is a he and I am a she. He is more egalitarian and I am more of a traditionalist. We strike an interesting balance. One that serves the congregation well.

Great post -- and I LOVE the title of your blog!!!!

Anonymous said...

In an act of gross procrastination, I opened my google reader which has been unopened in months. I came across your post on Nice Jewish Boys. I've been interested in this topic for a while since I am:

* A Jew
* A Feminist
* A Jewish Communal Worker

I've been involved in Jewish community/education for 18 years, all of it has been in an egalitarian setting. I've been one of the few men in the business. I agree that men still seem to occupy the higher echelons of power in the Jewish Community, but from pre-school through bar mitzvah, most Jewish boys in America, are taught exclusively by women. The act of going to synagogue or Hebrew School for most boys can be the equivalent of more mothering. When I reached bar mitzvah, I was breaking away from mothering, and would have been uninterested in something as feminized as the modern American Jewish educational system. I'm not sure that I speak for all boys, or that boys are the same today as they were during the Civil War when I was a child.

I seem to be meandering here.

I guess what I'm saying is that the pendulum has swung in the other direction. I don't recommend a return to patriarchy, but I do think that we should consider that boys and girls are different. Young Jewish boys should see groovy Jewish men in positions of leadership in their local Jewish communal structures. If all they see is another mother, well, that might just alienate them further.

Thanks for provoking me to think.